Part twelve of the multi-part BLUEprint Series: How the Ocean Will Save Civilization
As we embark on our collective quest for survival and the future, we must embrace science and technology as essential tools for defining the problems, measuring their extent, imagining multiple possibilities for solution, explaining, making, and sharing these innovations and alternatives, and providing a new navigation by which to locate ourselves precisely and safely in a vastness so real and emblematic as the ocean.
If anything is certain, it has been the astonishing role that technological progress has played in the advancement of civilization worldwide. Invention has completely reshaped our world through science, the collection and application of data, the transformative capacity of computers, the acceleration of global communications, the integration of the world economy, and the invention of efficiencies and alternatives and utilities at scale that have raised the overall standard of living and quality of life for everyone on earth. Not everyone has benefited equally, to be also certain, but as population and expectation has increased exponentially over time, technology has more often than not met the challenge through the application of human energy and imagination for the benefit of all mankind. With that recognition comes responsibility.
Science, like society, is complicated, and it confronts us with choice and principles for direction, governance, and the application of values. No one can solve every problem, and our lives it might seem are full of problems beyond the details of daily life, the extra-realities today of pandemic disease and political mistrust. While the tragedy of disease is evident in global statistics of infection and death, the prospect of a scientific response will mitigate the particular circumstance of this physical challenge. The emotional response is different, more ephemeral and difficult to understand and manage. It augments whatever other distress and dissatisfaction may exist in our lives, and subtly, perhaps not so subtly, affects our attitudes, our resilience, and our optimism for the future. It is pervasive, debilitating, and destructive. This negativity is further exacerbated by political response, the lack of leadership in some places that has amplified the consequence and distress. It is paradoxical that this failed leadership has attacked science while relying upon it inevitably as prospect for cure. The explanation for this can only be an inability to understand the complexity of both problem and solution, a return to simplicity and denial as a means to ignore incompetence and inadequacy, an empty offer of solace in place of determined resolution, a false reassurance that the problem is solved because it did not exist at all.
The pursuit of science and technology is the pursuit of explanation and application in the face of the human dilemma. It requires perseverance, courage, and risk to explore in hidden places: in the cosmos, the ecology, the psyche, and the inter-relationship of cause-and-effect in these mysterious places. It demands a fundamental belief in progress and an optimism that problems can be solved by inquiry and imagination and exploration of the entirety of our natural world.
To do this, we will need new understandings, new systems, new technologies, new applications — change fearlessly pursued as affirmation of what we call civilization. We will need a plan and, because of its vast capacity and resource, the ocean will be essential to its development and purpose. It will be key to the BLUEprint for the future.
How? Consider how we will create energy for a non-fossil fueled world. How we will feed ourselves adequately and safely in a non-fertilized land fill. How we will create new medicines and therapies in a non-terrestrial inventory of microbes and chemical processes. How we will provide fresh water to irrigate all aspects of vegetable and animal growth. How we will exchange goods and services in a world consolidated by trade and financial transaction. How we will sustain our beliefs and values, our families, our communities, and our feelings. How we will express our cultural histories and extend our mythic narratives through art, music, and word.
As we embark on our collective quest for survival and the future, we must embrace science and technology as essential tools for defining the problems, measuring their extent, imagining multiple possibilities for solution, explaining, making, and sharing these innovations and alternatives, and providing for us a new navigation by which to locate ourselves precisely and safely in a vastness so real and emblematic as the ocean.
I think of those sailors who long ago made passages with no tools but their ability to observe, connect, and translate to experience that brought them to places not even dreamed. They watched the relationship of the stars, the change in the night sky, the surface of the waves, the smells of the sea and the still invisible land. They exchanged this knowledge with others, trained successor generations, improved their accuracy with compass, chronometer, and sextant, with satellite and geo-positioning, and decreased the probability of loss of precious cargo and crew, and increased gain by successful transit through time and change enabled by the achievement of science and technology.
PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory, a web-based place of exchange for information and educational services about the health of the world ocean.